Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Space: The Final Frontier (Hope After Faith)

Space: The Final Frontier: Hope After Faith

Growing up my mother would set my brother and I down in front of the television set and go cook dinner. The only thing on in the six o’clock time slot was a strangely intriguing show, a little series known to the world over as Star Trek. I remember seeing my first episode of Star Trek on a little black and white box television at my Grandmother’s house just a few weeks after my parent’s divorce. My Grandmother was off in the other room consoling my mother, and for the next few weeks at Grandma’s this was the only show my brother and I watched. And the adventures of Gene Rodenberry’s sprawling space opera transfixed my imagination and unknown to my loving Christian mother the secular Humanist message would plant the first seeds of my atheism. To boldly go where no Christian has gone before…

That’s the short version of the beginning of the end of my faith. Granted a little known science fiction series was not the cause of my dwindling faith three decades later, it was merely an ideal which thirty some years later gave me reason to pause, after I had lost my faith I went through what most ex-Christians go through—a grieving experience. Mine lasted a whole thirty seconds. As I was beginning to feel the worry well up and ponder the implications of this bold and dangerous new territory I was venturing into, one without the familiar comforts or framework of organized religion, before the realization had time to set in a familiar theme song blared famously in the background on my television set. It was the heroic opening theme to Star Trek the Next Generation, and as Captain Piccard’s voice said those magic words, “To boldly seek out…” I suddenly felt a great weight lift off of my shoulders. My brief doubt of the meaningless void of a godless existence was suddenly filled the hope of a better brighter tomorrow.

Part of the reason fans of Star Trek have been so enamored with the series for over four decades is because it paints a picture of a future where science plays such a vital and intricate role in the moment to moment interactions of ordinary people. It has continued appeal because the struggles of Captain Kirk and crew are the same struggles we face today. In Roddenberry’s picturesque utopian future science has equipped us with the means to eliminate poverty, disease, and war. Something which seems as pertinent today as it did forty years ago.

It is no surprise that in the world of Star Trek those who clung to outmoded religious ideologies, tribal mentality, and war mongering all went the way of the dinosaurs—extinct. They either died off in senseless disputes and age old blood feuds of little importance, or they became civilized. This was a radical departure from the standard fair Little House on the Prairie styled family dramas, always with their visibly religious undertones, but Star Trek found its niche not only in those of us who saw merit in the secular humanist worldview, but in all of us who dared to dream big. Beyond a simple unassuming prairie was a vast spiraling galaxy wrapped in the milky froth of star dust, filled to the brim with sparkling stars and new planets to discover. The pastoral religious view of a quaint existence in the service of god, where submissiveness equated to a praiseworthy moral life, in my mind, was usurped by the rebellious power of what Star Trek stood for… the capacity for humanity itself to reach out into the void and perhaps touch the face of god itself! No longer were we a race of humble servants enslaved by the limits of our feeble imaginations, now we were on an equal plane with any so called deity, and the starship Enterprise was our vessel, it was our bridge to that other world, the one we dared to dream of.

Every week, in the absence of any god talk whatsoever, we found ourselves flung into a world of adventure and excitement along with the intrepid crew of the starship Enterprise. Our heroes were not the ancient Greek legends of yore, those cut from religious cloth, once venerated Olympians, Oracles, Ordained Messiahs, and Predestined Prophets but humble explorers and scientists. The protagonists were not mighty beings with vast powers like Superman of Jesus Christ Superstar, but regular people like you or I, trying to get by in an extremely hostile environment, but having the fortitude and ingenuity to adapt and evolve to each new precarious situation. Needless to say growing up watching Star Trek left me enthralled pondering the sort of future that I may grow up to see.


Recently a Christian friend asked me what I thought about the Hubble Deep Field surveys, and whether or not I thought it was the most important photo humanity has ever taken. I don’t know if it is the most important, but I personally find it to be the most eye-opening. Gazing into a black patch of virtual nothingness the Hubble telescope zoomed in for just over eleven days to see over 78 million light years across the known universe. In that black patch of nothing were literally thousands of galaxies, all with hundreds of millions of stars, many of which are almost certain to have life. Anyone who has grown up on a series like Star Trek will be instantly struck with an overwhelming sense of excitement, here it is—the view we until recently could only dream of—it was quite literally the most religious experience I have ever had looking at the Hubble Ultra Deep Field survey. After seeing that sprawling space scene spread out before my eyes Moses’ chatty burning shrubbery seemed all trivial by comparison. Mohammad’s splitting of the moon just seemed silly. Beholding the beauteous expanse of all of Mother Nature’s grand canvas of creation, all the stories in the world’s holy books were somehow relegated to the status of children’s bedtime stories, they became more inconsequential than they had seemed before, and my imagination was instantly transported to the thought of another possibility, one in which Gene Roddenberry’s reality was a feasible possibility.

In all truth, for those of us who have put childish ways behind us and have placed our fairytales back on the bookshelf where they belong, in contrast, have made the first step to transforming our dreams into realities. Where Christians and other believers see the death of God as a postmodern horror and desperately seek to deny anything which would falsify their belief in this God, science included, atheists view the death of God as one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

I suppose that’s the main difference between those who have matured beyond religious schemes, we view religion as a failed hypothesis through and through.

Somewhere in the world right now a brilliant mind is wasting away chanting over a cracker and making believe it is the flesh of a bygone figure lost to antiquity, and they will repeat this mantra in communion every week, week in and week out, so that the whole world will come to realize the importance they have imbued this cracker with lest they forget what it's all about. What would such obvious cracker worship appear like to a civilized race of explorers curiously watching us from above and wondering what the meaning of it all could be? 

Anthropologists as well as certain evolutionary psychologists have proposed that religious rituals are a badge of sorts, an emblem people of faith wear to show their allegiances and to which sect they belong, allowing them to congeal in the shared experience of their particular brand of faith. Beyond this, all of this regulation and ceremony serves little to no discernable purpose. All this stylized effort, this social and cultural plumage if you will, all this repetitive ritual, all this excessive compulsive architecture put in place by religion is, basically, so that everyone might be organized in accordance with the greatest man made effort of time wasting ever devised. But who am I to criticize their consecrated claptrap of a myriad of mundane practices? Believers seem to enjoy it, more or less, and apparently they find meaning in it. As long as they aren’t hurting anyone then shouldn’t they be allowed their little quirks? Besides, we all have our own mundane practices, daily rituals, and habitual routines and cherish the things that help us get by. Who am I do deny anyone this privilege? 

Even so, I still can’t help but see religious ritual as a huge waste of one’s time—as if religious practice was one giant cyclic error designed specifically to have you go in circles never to make any head way. If we want to understand the wonders of this world and the universe beyond it, we must venture to the cusp of our fears and breach the event horizon of our prejudices, we need to be as bold and courageous as the voyagers of the starship Enterprise.

Instead of wasting time with superfluous rituals designed to be signatures of faith, aimlessly peacocking about trying to outshine all the other acolytes, attempting to justify our beliefs as truer than the rest, we ought to begin to humbly study and analyze the unknown instead of being afraid of it whether we are religiously inclined or not. 

Secularism allows us a way to stay productive and busy working toward a better future such as ending world hunger, addressing global warming, and assessing any other potential threats which we may have to one day face without any Promethean worries of offending the gods. It goes without saying that even the most pious are capable of working toward a goal as well, I’m not denying their capability just their efficiency, since it goes without saying that they would be more productive if they didn’t take on and off their make-up six times a day, just for good measure. 

When you stop to think about it religion has not given us that much better of an understanding of the world. Not really anyway. It simply is a way of explaining away our fears and helps us to define ourselves in a barely comprehensible cosmos, and in our bewilderment those still bewitched by the religious spell, will inevitably, turn back in toward their faith. Like a broken record destined to repeat mandated mantras and instead of learning from the world hiding from it. Whenever the world encroaches on their territory they will retaliate, often how fearful and uninformed types prone to ignorance so often do, with violence and spewing hate followed by proclamations of holy war and wrathful vendettas against anyone who opposes their righteous entitlement issues.

Disregard the atheist slogan, as spot on as it is, that “Religion flies you into buildings; science flies you to the moon,” and consider that, in all truth, religion flies you nowhere. Religion did not invent the aeroplane—science did. Religion only warned Icarus not to fly up there, for that is the domain of the gods, in a phrase, that is not your territory to conquer. Icarus, of course failed, his feathery wings burnt up and the wax harnessing him to his father’s device melted away and down came Icarus, a testament to human limitations. But in the whole scheme of things it was science the triumphed. We not only flew to the heavens and back again, we did so without consequence. Science will fly us to the stars and beyond and it has given us the tools to glimpse what was once only the limitless imagination of a visionary science fiction writer; now it is the beginning of a much brighter journey toward discovery and understanding. 

As an atheist, it is in this realization where I find hope for a better tomorrow. It fills me with excitement to know that humanity may someday stop fiddling around in the dirt with so much nonsensical throw-rug rituals (or what not), and begin to take on the challenge of doing something wholly worthwhile and meaningful. Science has done this where religion has failed. Science has unlocked the mysteries of evolution, has decoded the human genome, has harnessed the potential of nuclear energy, has discovered the origins of our starry existence, and has shown us that the sky is the limit. Religion simply tells us not to fly too close to the sky.

So with an absence of faith, contrary to popular opinion, all hope is not lost. It is in this breakthrough realization that we find the means to create our own destiny, that nothing is truly preordained, and that in the secular humanist worldview working toward a better future is not only the most practical, reasonable, and responsible choice, considering the consequences of the alternative, but it is also the logical choice. For those of us who have shed such oppressive religious shackles of tyranny over the imagination, we are free to make our own destinies as we see fit, and set out on this bold new trek to new ways of understanding free from Icarian worries. Our wings will surely not burn off, because the wings science has given us are made not of paltry feathers, but the stuff of dreams. As I write this, I find myself smiling, for in retrospect I feel that I have come to understand and fully appreciate what Gene Roddenberry must have meant when he wrote those renowned opening words, “Space, the final frontier…”

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist